Friday 6 May 2022

A Cautionary Tale by Paul May

It was 1986 and I was in my first year of teaching when Robert Westall's novel, The Machine Gunners, got me into a bit of trouble. I'd trained as a teacher in the mid-1970s, at about the same time as Westall won the Carnegie Medal (in 1975) with his first published novel, and I may well have come across the book at that time. I didn't go into teaching after I qualified, partly because of the extraordinary careers advice session at the end of our course when the visiting speaker told us that most, probably all, of us had no chance of getting a job when we left, not because we were terrible teachers, but because there were no jobs.

Shortly after that I found myself busy being a dad, and I scraped a living for a few years as a silversmith and part-time playgroup supervisor, so it wasn't until 1986 that I started teaching. And by that time The Machine Gunners had been made into a BBC TV series which was first shown in 1983. So there I was, teaching a class of 30 children in Reception and Year 1 in a small First School with children up to Year 3. Of course it was before the National Curriculum so we didn't refer to Year 1 etc, but I find, worryingly, that I can't remember what we did call the year groups back then. Oh well . . .

One breaktime I wandered through the library where a Year 3 boy, let's call him Mark, was trying to choose a book. He held up a copy of The Machine Gunners and said, 'Do you think I'll like this?'. Thinking, no doubt, of the TV series, which had, after all, been broadcast during the children's TV slot at about 5.00 PM, and remembering how I'd enjoyed the book myself, I said yes, I'm sure you will, and thought no more about it.

Until, that is, the morning a few weeks later when I was summoned to the headteacher's office. Mark's parents had written a letter of complaint, not to the headteacher, not to the school governors, but to the County Education Officer himself. And what was the problem? The problem was knickers. Knickers were referred to in the book, not once, but several times and Mark had already been taking what his parents felt was an unhealthy interest in such matters, before a teacher, who should have known better, had recommended this appalling book to him.

Funnily enough they made no mention of the fact that on the very first page we learn that the girl from the greengrocer's shop has been blown to pieces in an air raid. As Chas McGill's father says, 'They found half of her in the front garden and the other half right across the house.' They didn't put that bit in the TV adaptation.

The County Education Officer delegated the task of dealing with the complaint to the County English Adviser who referred it back to my headteacher. After some discussion (and an apology to the parents - usually the best course of action in these situations) the book was removed from the library shelves as being not suitable for most eight and nine year olds. I think, having just re-read it, that this is probably right, but because of the horrors of war and not because of the knickers. 

I find it hard to believe that The Machine Gunners is Robert Westall's first book, because it is so accomplished and so brilliant and breaks new ground in so many ways. It made me feel the way I felt when I got my first pair of varifocal glasses. Suddenly everything was clear again. The characters are real people, not book people, or even book versions of real people. They talk like real people do. They swear (who would have thought it), they argue, they bully and they fight. They go to the outside lav and when the air raid siren goes they hobble desperately to the shelter with their knickers around their ankles. Better that than be blown to pieces like the greengrocer's girl. You don't need to be told that this novel is autobiographical. This is stuff you couldn't make up. It's real.

The book was a result of Westall's desire to share his wartime experiences on Tyneside with his son, Christopher. The machine gun element came from a newspaper cutting about a group of Dutch boys who had removed a gun turret from a crashed Allied bomber. In this book Chas McGill finds a crashed German bomber and removes the machine gun from the plane, then, with the help of a group of friends, builds a gun emplacement in the garden of a bombed-out house. 

The house is the home of Nicky, whose father, a ship's captain, has been killed. Nicky's mother has turned to drink in her grief and to the companionship of another naval officer. Before the house is bombed the whole neighbourhood has been talking about the family and not in a good way. All the children are told not to go to the house and Nicky has become the victim of a gang of bullies. Alec Ellis, writing in Chosen For Children refers to Nicky's mother as 'a drunken whore' which seemed a bizarre comment to me, given that Westall certainly doesn't use those words and the mother is clearly one more victim of the war. It is weird reading Ellis's commentary which is written in pompous and high-flown prose about a book which is exactly the opposite, and it makes me wonder if it conveys a flavour of the Committee's meetings:

'The author has undertaken a faithful portrayal of the early 1940s, showing the courage, fears and deprivations of War, when sirens wailed, food was scarce, and death stalked the towns and cities of the land. The free-flowing dialogue is in the voice of the people; and if course language and swearing has not been manifest in previous Medal-winning books, that is only because the authors were observing a convention which may cast doubts on their sense of reality, but not that of Robert Westall.'

Coarse language, eh! 'Death stalked the land'(!!) Those are words that Robert Westall would certainly not have written. His sirens went, they didn't wail.

So now we have swearing in a Carnegie winner, and sex, and violence. OK, there's been violence before, but not like this. Even amid the terrible destruction of the incessant bombing raids it is the violence of boy on boy which is truly startling, in an utterly convincing bullying incident near the beginning and in a vicious fight near the end. In between, Chas McGill (who stands in for the author here) gets in bad trouble for hitting a bully with his gas mask case, putting him in hospital. The bully Chas hit may have been bigger than him but the Sister at the hospital has no doubt about the rights and wrongs of the situation. 'You might have killed him,' she says.

 'He was bigger than me!' Chas replies. 

'That's no excuse,' says the Sister. 'British boys fight with their fists.'

Chas's dad says the same thing, and so does his headmaster. There is, of course, no condemnation of the fighting itself, and I'm reminded of the Opies observing children in a school playground where fighting was just a normal part of everyday life to be watched with detached interest. 

I'll be returning to Robert Westall later this year because, in 1981, he became the first writer to win a second Carnegie. For now, for more information about Robert Westall and his work I recommend the website maintained by his estate where, among other things, you can find a short biography and a couple of obituaries.  Money from Robert Westall's estate helped kickstart Seven Stories, the national centre for children's books, after his too early death in 1993 at the age of 63. Seven Stories hold Westall's archive and there's some great stuff viewable on line if, like me, you're a long way from Newcastle.

In her biography of Robert Westall Lindy Mckinnel quotes from a piece by Peter Hollindale, who quotes from an article in the periodical Signal which said of The Machine Gunners 'No children's book about the War so vividly depicts the truth of that time as this one. Westall has it all; the inner and outer tensions, the pressures and acts of courage and comradeship.' But, as Hollindale points out, not everyone liked The Machine Gunners. Some disliked its violence and profanity 'and, as other sensitivities grew sharper in the years that followed, it was attacked for its sexism and racism.' 

Westall's defence was always that his book was a true depiction of war. He said later: 'It is evil to rewrite history. The demands of anti-sexism and anti-racism are great upon me, but the demand of truth is greater than either. How can we know how far we have come, if we can't look back and see truly where we have been?' He must have got something right because the book is still in print.

But anyone watching the war unfold in Ukraine might reasonably think that we don't seem to have come very far at all. 

Paul May's website


Nick Garlick said...

One of my favourite books - I've read it twice - and a really interesting piece all about it. I like all your Carnegie Medal posts, but this has to be one of the best.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Weren't they usually called Class One; Class Two and all the way up to Form One/first form?

[and you are thinking of infants and junior classes and then Big School].

That was the Eighties for you!

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting piece, Paul - thank you.